Since the modern music industry’s inception, the dysfunctional family of art, commerce, innovation and technology has fought beside and against itself to get us where we are today. Each major paradigm shift (from piano rolls threatening sheet music to digital tech threatening analog) brings out the doomsayers claiming “the end is near” and cynics claiming “the old is better.” Nevertheless, with each change, the industry has come out on the other side bigger, stronger and, hopefully, better.
In the most recent shift, new tech promised to give the artist unprecedented opportunities and control, streamlining music production and distribution in the same ways other industries — like hospitality, transportation, grocery shopping, and food delivery — have and this had made it easier for anyone to create and share their art. With Uber people can get from A to B quicker than ever before. With Instacart, you can have your entire grocery list arrive at your doorstep. And with Pro Tools, Garageband, Logic, Soundcloud, CDbaby, Tunecore, Distrokid, Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, and a flood of plug and play home recording hardware, songwriters can make and release their own records — easier, quicker, and faster … and without the need for a label. Additionally, social media now allows unlimited opportunities for an artist to market themselves and connect to fans and influential people. And more recently, new services have emerged that help the artist track and collect any money generated from everything just mentioned.
In the same wave of anti-establishment attitudes that drastically changed the rules of the game for politics and other businesses, the music industry has shifted to cater to the independent spirit. The songwriter/musician has become a DIYer — independent from the “suits” — and that means that anyone can “make it.” Songwriters and performers have become empowered to wrest back ownership of their art and themselves from the sharks and scammers… but has it worked?
While new technology and the DIY age seems to have provided a pathway to allow some artists to successfully build their careers all on their own, the real question is whether or not the percentage of songwriters and recording artists who are finding mass market and monetary success in this DIY age is any larger than the percentage of artists who were finding that success in the past, prior to DIY, using the old business model. And furthermore, has technology really done anything to improve upon or disrupt the old industry whatsoever?
For all its faults, the conventional music industry did a lot of things right. While new tech is now offering “solutions” that claim to streamline and offer the same services that big labels used to (and still do) provide, the big difference is these new tech-based services put all the responsibility and risk on the artist and have no vested interest in whether or not the artist actually goes on to succeed. On the contrary, major labels were (and are) at least made up of a team of service providers that actually had a stake in the artist’s success and, if you were fortunate enough to get signed, a record label could be extremely valuable in cultivating that success. The label invested in you and, whether or not you succeeded, it was their gamble. They took care of the countless different things needed to develop your unique and authentic sound, pair you with compatible collaborators and producers who would be likely to elevate your music and market you and, for the most part, the label’s team consisted of people who were extremely qualified and connected to give you the best chance to succeed. It was also their job to keep everyone in check and watch over you.
Part of this old music business model does still exist. We do still have major labels responsible for breaking an artist into the mainstream, the big difference now being that major labels don’t provide much development early on in an artist’s career like they did for their artists in the past. But aside from that, this old music business model continues to run pretty much as it always has: a record label signs an artist, leverages their marketing expertise and contacts, and sells the product. Their core customer is still the same — the music consumer/fan. This new DIY industry, however, that has emerged is comprised not of labels, but of service providers and online marketplaces. These services and online marketplaces (Soundcloud, Spotify, Tunecore, Soundbetter, Studiotime, ect) provide DIY artists with many of the same services a label would, but with one major difference. While this new DIY industry is cloaked in the myth that these online services and the artist are still on the same team — creating a product to sell to the world — the truth is that somewhere along the way there was an almost undetectable (and perhaps unintentional) split that distinctly separates this new industry from the old — creating a completely different business model with a different set of rules selling a completely different product to a completely different customer. While the conventional music industry’s customer remains the fans and supporters of the artist, this new music industry’s customer …is the artist.
Today, an independent artist is left on their own to find (and pay) dozens of individual services to fill the shoes of major labels — none of which have any stake or vested interest in the success of the artist. Now, instead of the old way of an artist paying the label back for their services IF they made it,